Every new year we ponder life’s great mysteries. Why do men have nipples? Why is Malaysia so boring? Why are there so many statues of Lenin around the world?
Lenin who? Exactly.
Along with German philosopher Karl Marx, Russian dictator Josef Stalin, and Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, was one of the historic figures of the world communist movement—now in the dustbin of history as a failed ideology unable to deliver on its promise of a proletarian paradise on earth.
Rather, communism showed that no amount of mass indoctrination, totalitarian control, and five-year planning could make people produce enough goods, services and advancement for society without the incentive of individual gain. Indeed, even altruistic Christianity offered the incentive of personal salvation in the afterlife in calling on the faithful to selflessly deny themselves and serve God.
The Chinese Communists figured out this basic human truth back in the late 1970s, and wisely if surreptitiously adopted capitalist ways, while dressing them up in red with the label, “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That’s like calling Nazism “evolution with German perspectives.”
Communist China’s ideological sleight-of-mind made it the biggest economic success story of the past quarter-century, lifting most of its poor citizens out of poverty. And that is why Mao is still revered in his country on his 120th birth anniversary, instead of being consigned to academic footnotes and wrecking balls as another misguided preacher of the mistaken communist worldview.
A toppled Kiev statue resonates in Asia
Back to Lenin: The old geezer got back in European news last month, resonating even in Asia, after a towering bust of the founding father of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, successor to the Tsarist empire, was destroyed by protesters in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on December 8.
The outrage was particularly felt in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Singapore, which have recently endured rioting of their own, and even more so in Hanoi which has its own vulnerable Lenin statue.
In Kiev, protesters were enraged because, in their eyes, Lenin’s edifice symbolized their country’s continued domination by Russia.
They had naively hoped that Moscow’s shackles had been severed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But they had ignored the possibility of another imperialistic, Lenin-like figure arising. After all, once an empire builder, always an empire builder. Thus, along came Vladimir Putin, who forced Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich to retreat from forging closer ties with the European Union.
It wasn’t just Putin’s tyranny, but Russia’s security that was behind the pressure on Kiev. Every country wants to have buffer states between itself and potential adversaries. Especially Russia, having suffered invasions by France under Napoleon and Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler.
Horrified by Kiev’s kowtow to Moscow, the Ukrainians rose up. And down came Lenin. Carved from blood-red granite and standing outside the capital’s famous Besarabsky Market, the statue was a splendid sight and its destruction is rather tragic. That is, a tragic waste of good granite and superb sculpting.
Other stone Lenins to amuse and agitate
Still, there are plenty of other Lenins around the world, often in rather odd spots like Bologna, London and Tiraspol.
Among the most impressive is one in Seattle, which shows the great communist revolutionary striding forcefully forward. It stands under the Aurora Street Bridge in the funky Fremont district. Formerly in Slovakia, it was rescued from a scrapyard in Poprad by an eccentric American teacher, who mortgaged his home to ship it to the United States.
In Southeast Asia, the best-known Lenin stands in a small park in central Hanoi, near where Vietnamese quietly gathered on the morning of December 9, 2007. At a signal, they moved en masse to the adjacent Chinese Embassy and unfurled Vietnam flags and yelled insults against Beijing’s aggressive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
It was an amazing sight, and like the recent protests in Bangkok, neither the police nor the security services interfered in any way. And given such seething outbursts, and knowing the population’s antipathy to the ruling Vietnam Communist Party, Hanoi’s leaders rightly fear what might happen in the future to their Lenin statue and the communism it stands for.
That, of course, is why reports of Lenin’s dismemberment in Kiev were banned in Vietnam. Initially, the news was available online and the BBC reported that “it went straight to the most read spot, proving even more popular than coverage of the death of Mandela and protests in Thailand.” Then the censors swung into action and expunged every reference to the smashing of Lenin’s statue in Kiev.
It was not unexpected, given that in November, the National Assembly in Hanoi approved a new constitution reaffirming the VCP as the country’s only authorized political party. Those who criticize that decision or suggest moving to a multiparty system get lengthy jail terms.
Blogger Nguyen Van Hai is serving 12 years for writing about government corruption and protests against China over maritime disputes. Indeed, authorities have become so nervous that Hanoi’s popular Communism Café has been put under police surveillance due to its “blasphemous” decor.
The café, which features VCP posters and Ho Chi Minh artifacts, has menus written on pages copied from Lenin’s collected works. Hanoi’s leaders are not amused. As state-owned media reported: “This café has trampled on our ideological values, the moral basis of leaders like Lenin and especially Ho Chi Minh.”
What should really worry apparatchiks is that many, if not most Vietnamese would be amused by menus printed over Leniniana, and wouldn’t buy the VCP line. While this does not exactly answer any of life’s great mysteries, it does allow us to come to two solid conclusions.
Firstly, when the VCP is overthrown, Ho Chi Minh City will joyfully reclaim its rightful name of Saigon.
And secondly, that statue of whatshisname in Hanoi is likely to be smashed and replaced by someone else. Marx—Groucho, not Karl—might make a good replacement.
Plainly, it’s more fun when tyranny ends.
Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.